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Disabled Find Meaningful Work at Puna Kamaliʻi Flowers

Photos: Robert Duerr

Puna flower company employs people with physical and mental disabilities.

Marlin Yu is busy rolling recycled newspapers with his crippled hand while working inside the packing house of Puna Kamalii Flowers, which is appropriately painted with a bright floral design.

The Special Olympics golf champion flashes a smile as company owner Vicki Nelson passes by and she smiles back, but Yu stays focused on his work.

Puna Kamalii Flowers provides meaningful work for Yu and almost 20 other people with mental and physical disabilities.

Nelson and her husband, Tom, started the company in 1998 to create worthwhile employment for their special needs son, Zeb. “For 15 years, Zeb has been able to work independently,” she says. “ ... A real wage for real work.”

In the beginning, there was a single paper shredder to provide packing material for the floral industry on Hawaii Island. Today, the Keaau-based company also shreds documents, grows plants and flowers, and sells the plants and the output of 100 other local growers and shippers.

“We grow ti leaves, ginger and taro leaves for lau lau here, and birds of paradise on 2 acres in Leilani Estates,” Nelson explains.

Walking in the loi, Nelson greets taro leaf pickers Benjamin Gilson, Patrick Pedro and Joe, who at the moment can’t recall his last name for this reporter. Monitoring their fieldwork is Kaya Lela, a Hawaii Community College agriculture graduate.

Lela says that employing disabled people is both challenging and rewarding. “Have to be flexible – flexible like any farming,” she says. “It’s a complicated juggling act, but we figure it out.”  

At the packing house, lei maker Josie, who is blind, proudly announces: “I love making money. … I like everything, making leis, rolling paper, going to the dump.”

Being blind is an asset when she shreds confidential documents and, when listening to her iPod, she is known in the company as the “Rockin’ Shredder.”   

Nelson compliments her work. “Josie, you are making a nice lei,” she says.

“Oh thank you, Vicki. I thank you for everything here,” Josie says as she places another blossom on the lei.

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Hawaii Business,January